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1 February 2021
Choosing a new plant for your home is a fun thing to do. Browsing a web site, ordering and anticipating the arrival of a new houseplant has become a favourite pastime, especially during the months of lockdown. There may be many questions that might be crossing your mind, however. Will my new plant be happy in its surroundings? How will it cope with my lifestyle? Is there enough room for it to thrive? Fortunately, we are here to help.
The range and quality of houseplants has never been as good, and they have never been more popular. They look fantastic, provide a welcome sense of nature indoors and give us something to care for. Along with that, we have the anticipation of them growing and changing and becoming a valued member of the household.
Are you choosing a plant, or is the plant choosing you?
This question might seem a little odd, but it is worth thinking about. Were you browsing a web site, or wandering through a garden centre or even a supermarket when you saw a houseplant that you just wanted to own? An impulse buy, perhaps?
On the other hand, you may have had a more purposeful approach. You have a space in mind and you want to put a plant in it.
What do you need to consider before clicking on the “buy” button?
Once you have made the choice to buy, the questions that you might ask are:
- Where will it go in my home? Which room?
- How do I look after my new indoor plant?
- Do I have room for it?
- Will it get too big?
- What conditions will it like?
- How much time will I have to spend keeping it healthy?
What to check for when buying a houseplant?
Houseplants, like all living things, need a good start in life. The healthier its early life, then the longer it is likely to live in your care. A plant that has had a good start, carefully grown on a nursery, is going to be strong and well acclimatized to the indoor environment
Finding a reputable supplier
Needless to say, if you are reading this, then you have already found one. Having said that, it is always worth checking online reviews, and also see whether your supplier is also an interior landscaper. Companies that design plant displays for commercial buildings have access to plants that are specially grown, which tend to be stronger and longer-lived.
Does it look healthy?
If you are buying online, or in person, you should check for some obvious signs.
- Is the foliage free from blemishes, cuts and creases?
- Is the plant firmly rooted into its compost?
- Are there any pests on the leaves or stems?
- Are there any sticky deposits on the leaves or the pot? This could be a sign of pests.
- Are there yellow leaves or signs of wilting? If so, there is likely to be a watering problem or root damage.
- Can you take a look at the roots? The roots are the most important indicators of plant health, so if you can tap the plant out of its pot, it is worth doing. Healthy roots will be visible and firm, and should hold their shape, and the potting compost, if you lift the plant from the pot. If the plant has poor root development, then leave well alone.
<insert illustration of healthy and unhealthy house plant - showing roots if possible>
Do you get what you pay for?
There are certainly some bargains to be found, but as a general rule, it is usually worthwhile spending a little more to get a plant that is more likely to thrive and live a long time. Older, and larger plants that have had a really good start on a nursery are going to be healthier and well adapted to indoor environments.
Which room is the plant going in?
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This is a very important question, and it is worth taking a few moments to think about before spending some money.
Bedrooms and other rooms that are rarely used, especially during the daytime can sometimes be a little dark. If the lights are out for most of the day, the plants will have to rely only on daylight coming through a window, which as we’ll explain later, is probably a lot less than you think. For these spaces, plants adapted to low light levels will do best. These often have their wild origins on the forest floor in the tropics, so can cope with shade and warmth.
Bathrooms can be excellent locations for some plants (light notwithstanding) as the humidity can be very beneficial. Most houseplants have their natural origins in the humid tropics and thrive in conditions of high humidity (and are also more tolerant of occasional over watering). Orchids, bromeliads and tropical ferns do especially well in bathrooms, but you might want to avoid cacti and succulents.
Kitchens are also good places for some plants, if you have the spare space. They are also often humid as a result of cooking, and are often well lit (when in use). Space permitting, you would be able to use a wide variety of plants in the kitchen
Living rooms are probably the place where most plants will be kept. They are the most used rooms in the house, so will be the place where the plants are most often seen. However, they are not always the brightest of rooms and the air can be a little dry - especially during the winter when the central heating is on.
Conservatories and sunrooms
If you are lucky enough to have a conservatory or sunroom, then this might seem the obvious home for your new plant. In many cases, you would be right, but you must consider that the light can be too bright for some houseplants, and the temperatures might fluctuate. Good plants for these spaces might include succulents and plants that grow in the wild in places with a mediterranean climate.
What do plants need?
All houseplants need four things to survive:
- The right amount of space
- The right amount of light
- The right amount of water
- The right temperature
Every species and variety has its own needs, but for houseplant owners, there are some basic principles that are easy to get right. Remember too that indoor plants are adaptable and can sometimes be persuaded to live and grow in conditions that might not be considered ideal.
Let’s look at these considerations in a little more detail.
The right amount of space
This may seem obvious, but what is the right amount of space?
The right amount of space for a plant depends on the height of the plant (or its length, if you want a plant to trail, or hang over an edge), the size of the pot that it is in, how bushy, or spreading, the plant is and whether there is enough room for you to be able to get behind it to give it some care and attention.
The most important thing is that the plant looks good in its location - not too cramped, but also not not looking lost. And is it going to be sharing a space with another plant?
Plants on the floor
Plants on the floor are going to be a feature in any room, so they need to have presence, and space. If you are buying your new houseplant from a garden centre or DIY store, you should consider that they might look a lot smaller in that cavernous space than they will once you get them home. A plant in a plastic pot, and possibly wrapped in polythene might look the right size, but when you consider the planter that it will need, and the space the foliage is going to take up once that wrapping is removed, you might discover that you have bought a giant.
<insert illustration of, e.g. a Kentia palm in a nice pot, showing large overall spread>
Window sills are popular places for plants - they have many advantages, but a few problems too.
The first issue to address is space. Typically, window sills are about 20cm deep, so you have very limited space for your plant. They can’t spread too far, or else you won’t be able to draw your curtains and if they get a bit top heavy, they are easy to knock over.
Another issue to consider is temperature. In the summer, a windowsill can get very warm, especially if the sun is shining directly in, but in the winter, when the curtains are drawn they might find themselves in a bit of a cool spot.
However, on the plus side of the equation, window sills are usually nice and bright - even those away from direct sunlight, so you can expand your choice of plant to those that need a bit more light. Be careful of scorching the delicate foliage of some plants that would be happier in low light areas, and remember to rotate them to ensure even growth (I rotate my plants a quarter turn every time I water them).
On furniture and shelves
This is probably the most common place to put a plant. You have options to display them nicely among your other possessions and there is usually a little more space to put them without them being too cramped. It is always a good idea to make sure there is enough light and that your plants are easily accessible for watering and dusting.
Hanging from the ceiling or trailing from a high place
Hanging and trailing plants are great for those areas where you don’t have a free surface or enough space above the plant pot for foliage. Trailing and hanging plants provide a lot of impact for a small footprint. However, you do need to make sure that you can reach them safely to water and dust them, and if they are hanging from hooks, please make sure that they are secure and can take the weight of a fully watered plant and pot.
Against the wall
Tall, thin plants, or those growing on a frame or moss pole are great for placing against walls and corners as the foliage rarely grows beyond the diameter of the pot. This makes them ideal where floor space is a little tight.
The right amount of light
All plants need light for photosynthesis - the energy used by plants to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. However, they really are not as fussy about the source of light as some might have you believe. Daylight through a window is, generally, no better than artificial light - the important thing is to make sure that there is enough of it.
Most houseplants are well adapted to the light levels found in most homes, and do not necessarily need to be kept close to a window. Indeed some plants can be harmed by direct sunlight, and some are especially well adapted to shadier conditions, so do take note of any guidance provided with your plant about light.
One thing to bear in mind is that the human eye is quite bad at judging light levels. Our eyes adapt to changing light conditions, so if you need to be sure, you can use a light meter app for your smartphone. They are not as accurate as a professional light meter that interior landscapers use, but they do give a good indication about how light levels vary in different parts of the home.
The right amount of water
Watering is part art, part science and part habit. Each plant has its own requirements for watering, and you will find more information about that in our plant care guides. However, a good rule of thumb is to water quite sparingly - it is always easier to cure under watering than over watering, and most plants (except ferns) benefit from the soil being allowed to dry out a little to make sure oxygen can get to the roots.
The right temperature
In the wild, most species of indoor plants are found in the tropics or subtropics. These areas are warm and have little seasonal variation - much like the inside of our houses. If you are comfortable, then the chances are that your plant will be too.
Do try and avoid chilly draughts or places close to heaters and radiators, however.
How much time will I have to spend keeping it healthy?
Most houseplants manage well with benign neglect - they do not need too much in the way of cosseting and nurturing (but will respond well to it).
Obviously, you should spend some time watering your plants and dusting their leaves. Maybe some light trimming or grooming to keep them in shape will be needed too, but most of the time, all that is needed is a check to see that there are no pests. More information on routine care for each type of plant can be found in the plant guides.